Category Archives: Writing

SCBWI New York 2013

I would have posted this sooner, but I returned from New York to a sick child and then got a head cold. Ugh. Still, I wanted to share some of the highlights of the 14th annual Society for Children Book Writers and Illustrators Winter Conference in New York City.

First, if you write or illustrate, you should be a part of this group. Go ahead, join it now. The group offers local critique groups, and regional and national conferences. This was my second national conference, and I can definitely say the people are the coolest. Really. I attended an educational conference not long ago and one of the big-name speakers was whisked away at the end of her talk, leaving me sputtering a question at her back. Nice, huh? But at the SCBWI conference, I was walking around the evening social, and who was at my regional table? Jane Yolen. And then a woman I met asked, “Would you take a picture of me and Meg Rosoff? She’s right over there.” How cool is that?

The speakers were funny and inspiring. A booksellers panel discussed what’s hot in the market. Meg Rosoff was perfectly snarky when talking about the misconception that writing for children is easy and that “real” authors write for adults. Shaun Tan’s work proved how powerful an image can be and how a story can be told without words, Margaret Peterson Haddix said she’s thrilled that her books appeal to reluctant readers since they are the hardest to reach, Mo Willems encouraged us to dream big. Instead of saying your goal is to publish a book, why not say you want to change the world? And Julie Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton were what you’d expect of Mary Poppins and her child: so sweet and engaging.

The breakout sessions had a common theme this year, with agents and editors answering the question, “What hooks me?” Molly O’Neil, an editor at Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins said she has to fall in love with a project since, if acquired, she’d spend more than a year–at least– on it, reading it multiple times and considering everything from cover art to the marketing campaign. She works on all types of children’s books, from picture books, to middle grade stand-alones, to YA series. Jennifer Besser, publisher at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, talked about writing that pops off the page. She read from Rick Riordan’s THE LIGHTNING THIEF, which was her first acquisition as an editor.

In the end, the answer to “What hooks me?” was the same: good writing. Each editor had criteria for this, but in general, they know it when they see it. Timing is a major component, too. Vampire books may not get as much attention now post-Twilight, but they’d never say never.

The best part of the conference was talking to other writers who are at different stages of the writing-publishing process. Some work full-time and write when they can. Others write full-time. Some have an agent and are on submission, while others are drafting their first novel. What we all have in common is a desire to create stories. Everyone I met was friendly and supportive, regardless of whether they were a beginner or a published author. Again, I say, how cool is that?

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“Books are not better just because they are written for adults.” -Meg Rosoff

“You don’t get to be an author without a certain amount of persistence.” -Margaret Peterson Haddix

“Fail big if you have to, but go down trying.” -Margaret Peterson Haddix

“Aren’t we lucky?” -Julie Andrews

And finally some photos and a suggestion: if you haven’t attended a writer’s conference, you really should. You leave all warm and fuzzy inside, wanting to throw your hands in the air and shout, “I’m a writer!” Of course, you don’t do this, but you want to. They are that inspiring.

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Me chatting with Meg Rosoff, author of HOW I LIVE NOW

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Me and Meg Rosoff

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Me and Margaret Peterson Haddix, author of AMONG THE HIDDEN and many other novels.

My Second Blogversary

Two years ago, I started this blog with a draft of my first novel underway and a hope that it will someday be published. I wanted to get my name “out there” and wasn’t quite sure who would read this, but I started anyway.

Two years later, this space is still a work in progress, but I have figured out the types of posts I like to do and will continue to do those. For example, I made a commitment to read more novels by and about Latinos and spotlight those titles. Latinos are the fastest growing minority group in the U.S., and I think it’s important to highlight work by Hispanics for readers of all backgrounds. I have also written about my students, who are reluctant readers, and the books they love. Everyone hears about award-winners, but I’ve discovered lots of other great books because my students said, “This was good.” And trust me, when a teen who never reads says that, I pay attention. I’m happy to highlight those books.

I write about what I do daily: read, write, and teach. Because teaching is my full-time paying gig, I haven’t kept a strict schedule with the blog. Some people religiously post on certain days. I admire that, but I’m not there yet. I want to be more consistent, but probably once a week is the best I can do given my schedule.

Other things that have happened since I started this blog:

I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and a local critique group.

I attended the New York SCBWI conference and met lots of great people.

I revised my first novel and wrote a second one.

I wrote a guest post for Latina Book Club.

I was part of a blog tour for A THUNDEROUS WHISPER by Christina Diaz Gonzalez.

People in 40 countries have checked me out. A big wave to that person in Kenya, the reader in the Philippines, and those seven people in Armenia. How cool is that?

Two years later, my third novel is in the planning stage. I still have the hope that my first novel will be published, but I feel like I’m closer to that becoming a reality. I’ll be attending the New York SCBWI conference again, and this time, I will actually know people! I look forward to this year and will continue to do the things I love–read, write, and teach–and blog about them.

More Diversity Needed in Children’s Literature

Last week, the New York Times published an article about the fact that Latino students don’t often see themselves in books. This sparked lots of discussion, with a few responses printed days later. Then, earlier today, NBC News reported that according to Census data white people will no longer be the majority in the U.S. by 2043.

Times they are a-changing. This is not “news” in the sense that these projections have been made before, but these facts about our country’s changing population have been getting more attention because of the large number of non-white voters who participated in the presidential election. Let’s focus on the reading issue…

When it comes to reading, there are some near-certainties. Children who are read to from birth to age 3 enter preschool with an advantage. Children who attend organized preschool have an advantage. By kindergarten, the literacy gap–even though students cannot yet read themselves–already exists. If a child is not reading on grade level by the third grade, he or she could lag in school forever. Yes, forever. I teach reading in high school, so obviously I believe it’s never too late to improve one’s reading skills. Still, while my students make gains, other students are–you guessed it–making gains, too.

With our changing population, parents, teachers, writers, and the publishing industry have a lot to consider. Parents need to read to their children every day. All subject teachers must see themselves as reading teachers and must make conscious choices in terms of reading material. And, ultimately, I hope more books by and about Latinos are published.

I believe that a child should read widely, not just about one’s own race or culture, but I also think it’s important that a child “see” himself (whether it’s because of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or other personal experiences) in a book. Why? Because we live in a diverse society, and our diversity should be represented in the books we read.

Since the recent news was about Latinos, I’m going to focus on that piece. To read book after book with only white characters is simply unrealistic when, in 30 years, the majority of Americans will be non-white. With the growth of the Hispanic community, how strange would it be for children to grow up reading books that do not have Hispanic protagonists or supporting characters? How strange would it be to hardly ever read a novel written by a Latino/a? More books by and about Hispanics would be a great thing.

I also think people need to be more aware of and support current Hispanic writers. There are lots of great MG and YA books out there already! Check out this mega list. Other great places to check out are the Latina Book Club, the Hispanic Reader, and Vamos a Leer.

Anthologies often include stories from a few of the greats–Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, and Gary Soto, to name a few. They are amazing writers, all among my favorites, but teachers and librarians need to venture beyond these go-to authors and give props to other Hispanic writers by using their books in class or offering them to students regularly as independent reading options. My school did this exact thing recently.

Matt de la Peña visits Hall High School in West Hartford, CT, on Dec. 7.

Matt de la Peña visits Hall High School in West Hartford, CT, on Dec. 7.

Matt de la Peña came to my high school on Dec. 7. He talked to all 9th graders (not just Latinos) in the auditorium and then ran smaller sessions that were mixed in terms of grade (9-12) and race. In preparation for his visit, the school library ordered multiple copies of his novels: BALL DON’T LIE, MEXICAN WHITEBOY, WE WERE HERE, and I WILL SAVE YOU. Our students’ comments during and after his visit proved that Matt appealed to ALL of our students.

Comments from my Latino students were interesting, though. More than one asked me if he was rich. I said he has two college degrees and four published YA novels, with a fifth on the way. One was made into a movie. Is he rich? I don’t know, but he is successful, in my opinion. Another boy, who sat through both of the small sessions and talked to Matt afterward lost the book that was signed for him. He thinks someone stole it. I found him one day roaming the halls after school looking for it. The next day he said, “It’s weird, but I kind of miss him. He was cool.”

I know my students well enough to know that they saw themselves in Matt: a young Mexican-American who was a reluctant reader and the first in his family to go to college. They saw themselves in his characters and then met the author and made a connection.

It was an experience they won’t soon forget, and one that proves it is important for Latinos to see themselves in the books they read and names like theirs on the spines.

NaNoWriMo = Not For Me

Writers participating in National Novel Writing Month are at the half-way point. If a writer is on track, then he or she is 25,000 words into the 50,000 word manuscript that will be complete by the end of the month.

Whew!

I thought for a second about joining NaNoWriMo, but then the moment passed. The process would likely send me over the edge. I applaud anyone who can do it, and maybe someday I’ll be able to, but not now.

In fact, during the last month, I went the other way. Instead of belting out as many words as possible in a short amount of time, I took a break. I haven’t written a blog post or a single sentence for a work in progress. In fact, I don’t have a work in progress. The “write everyday or die trying” writing gurus are probably tsk-tsk-ing at me, but I’m okay with that. I needed a break.

The truth is, writing daily doesn’t work for me. Here’s why: I am a single mom of an active 5-year-old girl and a not-so-active but needy 14-year-old dog. Here’s a picture of Rusty putting up with my daughter. Isn’t he a good sport?

I start teaching at 7:30 a.m. and often have after-school commitments that are followed by getting the humans and canine fed and ready for the next day.  If I have a snow day, if my daughter and dog go to bed early, or if my parents invite my daughter for a sleepover, I write. And I mean, I go for it. When I have a block of writing time, I often don’t leave the computer unless it’s for food or a bathroom break. I work every minute of the time I get to write, but these moments don’t happen every day.

I write when I have time, but I don’t have the time or mental energy to write every day. This is why I would be a NaNoWriMo casualty. I can’t commit to a certain word count each day with the goal being a completed novel by the end of the month. Just the thought of it makes me shiver. Maybe one day, but for now, my “write when I can” method works. I’ve written two pre-published young adult novels. Soon after completing the second one, I tackled a major revision of the first one.

After that, I needed a break. I’m glad I did it, too, because I want to love what I’m writing. I want the characters to dance in my head while I’m in the shower or driving to work, acting out the scenes that will become chapters when I have the time. If I had thrown myself into NaNoWriMo with a half-baked idea, I would have cried, “Mercy” by now.

Stepping away from the keyboard has been good for me. I’m ready to start developing a new idea. I’m excited about that. It won’t get done in a month, but that’s fine by me.

Debut Author: Kimberly Sabatini

Kimberly Sabatini is counting down the days to the release of her debut novel, TOUCHING THE SURFACE, published by Simon Pulse, a division of Simon & Schuster. Since this week is also linked to Darcy Patterson’s Random Acts of Publicity, I’m choosing Kim’s book to highlight.

I haven’t read it yet, since it comes out October 30, but I’m willing to give it a shout-out and an old-school fist pump. Why? Because Kimberly Sabatini is one of the nicest people around. Really.

After I attended my first SCBWI conference in New York, I wrote about how Kim extended herself, making me feel welcome in a place where I didn’t know anyone. You can read about that by clicking here.

Let’s be honest, the online world can be venomous. In fact, I refuse to read the comments section of any online news outlet. What starts as conversation turns into vile, childish name-calling. I mention this because I met Kim online and she has always been positive and supportive. Her genuine optimism is refreshing and appreciated. It makes me want to root for her. Go, Kim!

Found through Creative Commons

You can click here to read Kim’s recent blog post about her upcoming book birthday for TOUCHING THE SURFACE.

Here is the description of her novel on Amazon:

“When Elliot finds herself dead for the third time, she knows she must have messed up, big-time. She doesn’t remember how she landed in the afterlife again, but she knows this is her last chance to get things right.

“Elliot just wants to move on, but first she will be forced to face her past and delve into the painful memories she’d rather keep buried. Memories of people she’s hurt, people she’s betrayed…and people she’s killed.

“As she pieces together the secrets and mistakes of her past, Elliot must find a way to earn the forgiveness of the person she’s hurt most, and reveal the truth about herself to the two boys she loves…even if it means losing them both forever.”

Sounds good, right? Go ahead and pre-order it! You can find it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble or by clicking one of the links above. Best wishes for much success to Kimberly Sabatini!

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

My full-time, paying day-job is about to start again. This means writing time will be in low supply but high demand. That’s why I spent much of this summer writing.

I have always worked year-round. When I became a teacher twelve years ago, this didn’t change because I landed an awesome summer job teaching future teachers. My full-time, at-home job as single mom to an adorable little girl has been going on for five years. A few years back, I added young adult fiction writing to my life.

Finding time to write has been difficult (major understatement). Now, couple that fact with this one: this was my first summer without a paying job. When my summer job was cut, I searched frantically for this:

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Found through WikiMedia Commons

Would I have enough money to make it through the summer? Should I apply for other jobs? Will I have to sell my house and move into a studio apartment? Will my parents get suspicious if I always show up at dinner time?

But, as the spring semester inched closer to June, I welcomed summer unemployment and trusted everything would be fine. After much deep breathing, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to write.

After I slept.

Trust me, I needed to recover recharge after the school year if I was going to be creative. Most of July was spent with “butt in chair,” which is the #1 piece of advice published authors give to pre-published writers. You want to be a published author? Then, put your butt in the chair and write.

That’s exactly what I did.

During July, I finished my second young adult novel, called AESOP’S CURSE and sent it to my agent to read. I also completed a major revision of Chapters 1-9 of RESURRECTING EMILY and sent that to my agent who will read it and then send it to someone who cannot be named yet. I have to finish the revisions to RESURRECTING EMILY, which will take me into September, and I have an idea for Book #3 already brewing.

For a week in August, I went to Nags Head, NC, with good friends. Here’s proof that I actually went outdoors this summer. I’m not in the picture, but I took it. I was there, I swear:

But, truthfully, mostly I stayed in to write. I may have missed some parties or beach time,  but knowing the way my life is, and how little “extra” time I ever have, I needed to keep my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard this summer.

School starts a week from today, which means my schedule will return to its state of organized chaos. My school-year schedule includes my daughter’s activities and much-needed exercise for me since I sat on my rear all summer! I have also vowed to go out and have more….fun!!

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Found through WikiMedia Commons

All of this means I will have to work harder to carve out writing time. As difficult as that is, I’ll do it because it’s important to me. I love to write and I want to get published.

What did you do on your summer vacation? Did you get something accomplished? Did you have fun?

Critique Group Take 2

The first time I attended a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators critique group, I did a great impression of the Bid Red Chicken from Dora the Explorer. See this post for details. In short, I chickened out of reading from my work in progress, a young adult novel titled AESOP’S CURSE. The people sitting around the table were friendly and supportive, but it was my first group critique session ever. My nerves got the best of me, so I chose to listen and offer advice instead of put myself out there.

Well, I’m happy to report that I have shed my Big Red Chicken feathers. I recently attended a meeting of a new SCBWI writer’s group that meets closer to my home, and when it was my turn, I read the first five pages–Chapter 1–of AESOP’S CURSE.

Only a couple of people have read parts of it. My friend Matt read the first few chapters, and I had posted the first fives pages on the YALITCHAT website. I received lots of helpful feedback, which I used to nail down those crucial first chapters. My friend Stacy has read all of it so far. She’s been great, offering encouragement and letting me talk through certain scenes.

So, I have shared it with some people already. Having others read it and give me feedback doesn’t make me nervous. As a former journalist, the write-revise-edit cycle is ingrained in me. I want my novel to be in the best shape possible before I send it to my agent to read. The thing is, everyone who has read parts of it has read it on their own and then sent me comments via email. I’m used to this process.

Reading self-created work aloud in front of strangers is different and nerve-wracking. My sister, who is an artist, understands. As an undergraduate, she would reveal a piece to the class and then stand next to it in silence while everyone looked it over and prepared their comments. Awkward! But a necessary part of the creative process.

Plus, what’s the point in joining a writer’s critique group if I don’t participate fully, right?

When it was my turn to read, my voice was shaky at first. As I went on, though, I sounded less like a robot with the chills and more like my main character, Aaron. My reading fell into a rhythm, rising and falling where it needed to, emphasizing certain words as Aaron would.

When I was done, my critique group offered lots of positive feedback–Thanks!–and some suggestions. Overall, they liked it and wanted to read more. I’m excited to bring the next five pages to our May meeting and hear what the others have written!

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